The dream scenario is unlikely to materialize, but why not dream? Why not dream of the Clippers opening next season with a starting lineup that includes Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis?
Hey, it’s possible.
As the Lakers’ never-ending soap opera has taken a disheartening turn over the last couple of weeks, the Clippers have quietly positioned themselves to realize the oversized ambitions of Steve Ballmer, their enthusiastic owner.
They have the cap space to sign Leonard this summer. They can create the cap space to also take on Durant. They have the assets to trade for Davis.
The Clippers have positioned themselves to dream.
Lawrence Frank, the team’s president of basketball operations, is reluctant to look beyond this season, but even he acknowledged, “We’re in great position going forward.”
Especially after the Clippers sent their best player, Tobias Harris, to the Philadelphia 76ers before the trade deadline.
“We know what our North Star is,” Frank said. “Our North Star is to have successive chances at an NBA championship.”
Frank and team consultant Jerry West were under orders from Ballmer to construct this perennial contender while remaining competitive, forcing the Clippers to skip the detour to the bottom of the standings commonly taken during rebuilding.
The Clippers, freed from the level of scrutiny to which the Lakers are subjected, were able to trade Harris without causing much of an uproar, even if doing so compromised their publicly stated ambition of reaching the playoffs this season.
With a 32-27 record, the Clippers are in eighth place in the Western Conference.
Harris averaged 20.9 points and 7.9 rebounds for the Clippers. Retaining Harris beyond this season would have cost them the opportunity to pursue a top-level free agent. Even if they wanted to re-sign him, there was no guarantee they would, as he was an unrestricted free agent.
“Look, trading players and trading players of Tobias’ character and talent, it sucks,” Frank said. “I mean, it really stinks because you love the guy and what he means to the team. But what you have to do, you have to fast-forward and close your eyes and visualize. In order to build a sustainable championship contender, there are going to have to be some really hard and tough decisions to be made.”
The Clippers’ return in the six-player trade included rookie guard Landry Shamet, as well as multiple draft picks that could be used in, say, a potential deal for Davis.
“The plan was to assemble a bunch of competitive, hard-playing, tough-minded, gritty, resilient guys in order to have a competitive, hard-playing, tough, resilient team,” Frank said.
What Frank didn’t say was they have a roster and team culture that looks particularly well-suited to support a star player.
Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell are premium bench players on team-friendly contracts, with Williams owed $8 million next season and Harrell $6 million. Between Shamet, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Jerome Robinson, the Clippers have three promising guards on rookie contracts.
The team’s most expensive player, Danilo Gallinari, could be moved if packaged with a draft pick or two.
And in Doc Rivers, the Clippers have one of the best coaches in the league. In Ballmer, they have the league’s wealthiest owner.
“The thing about Steve, it’s not just the wealth, it’s his passion,” Frank said. “He wants and he’s committed to making the Clippers the ultimate destination.”
Frank said Ballmer has made investments to provide players with everything from improved nutrition to blood testing to check for vitamin deficiencies.
So the Clippers have done the hard part. They have established a new culture and positioned themselves to make a major move this summer while remaining competitive.
Now comes the really hard part. They have to actually land a superstar. Or two. Or three.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez